“…Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person. This is something that can happen in a conversation, but can also apply to critiques of entire civil rights organizations and movements.”So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
Tone policing, micro-aggressions & invalidating behaviours. A reflection.
Britain’s uncomfortable conversation about race hasn’t vanished. As much as the Sewell Report aimed to silence and obscure the true scale of racial disparity faced by millions in this country, we are at yet another point of reflection. In this piece, I want to reflect on Layla F. Saad’s incredible book, Me & White Supremacy, focusing on recent events around tone policing. Using this week’s incident involving MP for Coventry, Zarah Sultana and my own lived experience, let’s shed light on tone policing.
On July 14th, Labour MP Zarah Sultana gave a speech at the House of Commons after England Footballer, Tyrone Mings called out the Home Secretaries ‘pretend disgust’ at racism directed at England’s black players. Sultana passionately said that the PM and members of his cabinet have been, “stoking the fire” of racism. Also adding, they have given racism the “green light” in the UK. As the PM tries to condemn racism, the shadow of his own heinous racist rhetoric will always follow him. Zarah Sultana reminded the House of the PMs comments which included, describing Black people as “picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” The PM remains under scrutiny for failing to condemn the booing of England players for taking the knee ahead of matches. The Home Secretary herself branded the taking of the knee as “gesture politics” to only days later post on social media herself in an England shirt. This is all documented, factual and Zarah Sultana is a fierce believer in creating a more socially just world.
This is where it became uneasy for people of colour (POC). As Sultana relayed the concerns of many of us, Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins refuted her factual allegations. In a disgustingly condescending way, Atkins asked Sultana to “lower her tone.” She then went on to say, “I don’t genuinely think the honourable lady is accusing either the Prime Minister of this country or indeed the Home Secretary of racism. That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make.” Here we have both racial gaslighting and tone policing or the tone argument. These are both invalidating behaviours that POC face every day, particularly women of colour. Atkins comments seeped with the notion of “know your place” and “are you sure that’s what happened?” Comments on tone have historically been used to silence and marginalise the voices of disadvantaged groups. Attacking the tone of the argument rather than its content, this is tone policing. Oh, the irony of telling some who has experienced racism to lower their tone about racism whilst protecting someone accused of racism. A deliberate ploy to divert attention and thus accountability. This isn’t the first time where a woman of colour has been tone policed in Parliament. Just last year Dr Rosen Allin-Khan was told to “watch her tone” by the now-disgraced former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. These comments are micro-aggressions, incredibly invalidating and begin to make you wonder, what has the status quo got against intelligent and eloquently spoken Muslim women calling out racism?
I’m still appalled. The House of Commons is hardly a cordial place of decorum and mutual respect. The sheer number of MPs who belch and shout over one another is simply astounding. Yet, when a Muslim woman wants to comment on racism, she is met with such patronising arrogance.
What is tone policing and why does it happen?
To help unpack this tone argument, I would like to refer to Layla F. Saad’s – Me & White Supremacy. Saad’s book is based on an Instagram challenge she launched in 2018 and it is a 28-day journey for people who have white privilege. The intention is to help guide those with this privilege to better understand this privilege and address their own unconscious racist thoughts, beliefs and biases. It is not an easy read but for those who really want to reflect and bridge the praxis of allyship, it is a must-read.
According to Layla F. Saad, tone policing is, “a tactic used by those who have privilege to silence those who don’t by focusing on the ‘tone’ of what is being said, rather than the actual content.”
In our emotionally illiterate society, any indication of emotion or emotional overtones in an argument will be deemed as ‘irrational’. As IQ continues to take precedence over EQ in the school curriculum, the ability to articulate your emotions into words cannot be understated. When a POC feels as though they have been unfairly treated, it triggers an emotional response but to solely state their response is emotional, implicitly we take the logic or rationality out of their point of view and experience. The fact that it is dismissed, ill-judged and yes, tone policed says more about the emotional intelligence of those doing the dismissive ill-judging and policing. I really like this table produced by the Global Reform network.
At its very core, tone policing is ad hominem. It is a divisionary tactic to gaslight and protect privilege rather than confront uncomfortable truths. Instead of considering the validity and logic of the argument, the tone in which this argument comes packaged is attacked. Instead of tackling the injustice, tone policing aims to dilute the message of this injustice. It invalidates it as a haphazard emotional outburst as opposed to a legitimate stance against unfair treatment. Tone policing is a strategic invalidating act that aims to steal the narrative away from the victim. This is done to regain control over a conversation by framing the speaker as overly emotional, hyper-sensitive or unreasonable. Once your tone is policed, your argument gets rendered as totally invalid regardless of how much evidence you are produce.
Saad later goes on to explain how a POC’s expression of anger is seen as dangerous whereas, for a white person, such expression is deemed as “righteous.” Saad also reminds us that the caricature of the “angry” POC, particularly of the “angry Black woman” is very common when it comes to tone policing. This notion that they cannot control their emotions and lack the restraint to present their views in a “cordial” way. The world has an issue with confident and assertive POC, and particularly women of colour might I add. As a good friend of mine, Flo reminded me in our podcast “If you call it confidence, self-assurance; or not being undermined but aggressive? I’d challenge that.”
So, you’re probably wondering, “what does tone policing sound like? Saad also asks persons of privilege to consider if they have said any of the following:
- “I wish you were saying what you’re saying in a nicer way.”
- “I can’t take in what you’re telling me about your lived experiences because you sound too angry.”
- “Your tone is too aggressive.”
- “The language you are using to talk about your lived experiences is making me feel ashamed.”
- “They way you are talking about this issue is not productive.”
- “If you would just calm down, then maybe I would listen to you.”
What does tone policing sound like?
From my own experience and reflecting on Layla F. Saad’s work, I have a list of examples of what tone policing sounds like. Although this is not an all-inclusive list, I aim to shed light on a handful of examples to help our readers understand my position.
I don’t like your tone.
I was working in a school where I perhaps didn’t agree with everything management wanted from their staff. So, one day I stuck my hand up in briefing and raised a concern over workload. Before I spoke, another member of staff who was White also relayed concerns about workload. When I finished my piece, a DHT said, “I don’t like your tone.” I had just been tone policed. I was calm, never raised my voice and simply wanted to relay my concerns in a forum that was open to everyone. Essentially, my concerns were invalidated and despite my fresh-faced NQT appearance, I did believe I had something important to say. When you are tone policed you begin to second guess if what you said was, a) appropriate, and b) if your tone was inappropriate. “Should I have said that?” “Oh no, this will get me in so much trouble” played in my head for weeks after this incident. Making someone question their version of events and then policing how they feel and how they should or should not express these feelings is gaslighting. Yet, before I realised what had happened, time had passed. This is why there is so much learning and un-learning still to do.
Calm down so we can discuss this like adults.
The notion of “calm down so we can discuss this later/or as adults” is particularly disturbing. Firstly, this is a wide assumption about your emotional state. Secondly, it implies your lack of calmness means you cannot have a grown-up conversation about your experience. I remember being racially abused by a member of staff at a leading theme park on a school day trip. This person followed me around the theme park, continued to ask me for my ID and even questioned if I was a “real” teacher. Much to frustration, my students saw this entire encounter and were visibly shocked. When I went to the trip leader about this incident, she repeatedly said, “it wasn’t racist, there are loads of Asian people here” and also asked me to “calm down so we can discuss like adults.” I was then asked to explain my version of events which lead to the comment, “you are not in the right frame of mind to tell us what really happened.” Years on, I still feel so aggrieved at this particular incident. Instead of challenging what had happened, the tone in which I used to explain what had happened faced more scrutiny than the racial profiling I had experienced. This taught me that everyone’s trauma, sadness, anger, fear or any other emotion is completely valid. We need to be asking people what happened, why they feel the way they do and then help support them. Focus on the content of the experience and not the tone in which it has been described to you.
“Okay, but the way you said it was…”
As mentioned before, being targeted because of your protected characteristics can lead to no end of anger or frustration. Perhaps what can double the blow of tone policing is the comment, “okay, but the way you said it was… aggressive/rude/abrupt.” There’s tone policing and then there’s policing the reaction to being tone policed. Let me add an example to explain. I was once racially abused by a student and of course, I was irate. I wanted the school to take action immediately and called for someone to re-educate this young person. When the student returned to school, no sanction was put in place. He was not punished at all. When I asked someone in management why this was the case, their reply was that my reaction to the racism was, in their own words, “over the top” and that I was “too emotional.” I was left dumbfounded. Instead of challenging the racism, they wanted to challenge my tone and emotional response to being racially abused? Ultimately, it invalidated my experience and later when this same student used homophobic language in school, management didn’t have a leg left to stand on. With such incidents, very real dialogue is necessary to support the victims of abuse and ensure a level of sanction meets the offence.
Why should we call it out?
Gendering of emotions
Tone policing usually functions from gendered emotions. Through the process of canalisation, certain stereotypes remain deeply embedded in our psyche. Policing someone’s tone creates a binary between emotional-rational and some commentators like Layla F. Saad would say, male-female and POC-white person. Gender and race/ethnicity intersect here once again. Tone policing women, particularly women of colour re-enforce these stereotypes and at a time where we battle the generational evils of toxic masculinity, I would suggest there’s so much learning and un-learning left to do, fellas.
Victoria Atkins had no intention of allowing a conversation about racism to gain pace in the Commons. These difficult conversations are taking place right across the world right now. However, those who empowered racism in the past are in no place to condemn racism in the present or future. You cannot condemn behaviours you support and ones you have never truly apologised for. Tone policing aims to keep the impact of the discussion at hand to a minimum. Those who benefit from the voyage have no intention of rocking the boat. It is easier to say, “watch your tone” rather than address your own fragility and the privileges you have so glad-handily benefitted from. This incessant urge to retain the monopoly of power and preserve privileges further silences historically disadvantaged groups. By failing to listen to these groups, we fuel the anger and alienation thus pushing these groups out of the democratic process and public discourse. Ultimately, these conversations you are so fearful of will take place whether you like it or not.
Silencing marginalised groups
When a conversation is tone policed, it further marginalises the groups who are already feeling the weight of disadvantage. These disadvantaged groups feel un-represented, silenced and marginalised by society. They want to be included but are forcefully excluded from arenas where they can bring change to their communities. This pent-up anger and frustration need an outlet but when a Muslim MP is tone policed, it silences an entire community’s very real grievances. Discussion on race is thus deemed taboo or off limits which pushes them further underground, into avenues that can’t be reached, where misinformation is rife and where education and guidance can’t be given. Tone policing gives the impression that the demands for basic human rights is “unreasonable” and prolongs racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Accepting, acknowledging and educating
Tone policing diverts attention away from the real issue at hand. When the main policer questions the tone of an argument, for the audience, the purpose of the argument gets lost or deliberately shut down. This prevents the audience to seek education, reflect on their privileges, uplift and support others and empathise with marginalised groups. Tone policing aims to create a sense of emotional distancing which is key in dehumanising marginalised groups and sustain the binary of us vs. them. Zarah Sultana was measured, clear and confident. She is a voice that deserves to be heard. Tone policing has meant she has been portrayed as “emotional” and just like many POC before and after her, this has meant an opportunity for learning and healing can be lost. We must do better. We all have so much learning and un-learning to do.
Tone policing centres on the binary of emotion vs. reason. The former is seen as being unable to coexist alongside the latter. When in reality, reason and emotion do and can work side-by-side in any given discussion. Tone policing is a form of gaslighting as it also creates a hierarchy between the policer’s feelings and the lived experience of those, they are policing. Also, through tone policing, if you don’t come across using normative ‘politeness’ and cordialness, your argument may be seen as less valid. Let’s make this clear, your argument, lived experiences and trauma are valid.
If you have read this blog and thought “this hasn’t happened to me” that is your privilege speaking. We need to hold conversations about racism and this starts with allowing POC to shed light on their lived experience without fear of any invalidation from those in positions of privilege. I suggest we all begin a period of reflection and get a hold of Layla F. Saad’s – Me and White Supremacy. By changing our outlook we can empower POCs to, as Saad puts it, have a “full expression of their humanity.”
Finally, I wish to send solidarity and support to Zarah Sultana, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan and any POC who has been tone policed. We stand by your message. Never dilute your message. Please carry on being your authentic, eloquent, brilliant selves. It’s clear that intelligent Muslim women are a threat to the established order, so much so, the tone becomes the centre of their argument rather than the validity of the argument you present which they have no answer to whatsoever. This past week has evoked a level of reflection on generations of micro-aggressions which implicitly tells POC to “know your place.” This is a broken system, it needs challenging. So, let’s challenge it, akhi.
Thank you for reading.